Between 1725 and 1735, Michael Ranft, a Lutheran clergyman born in Saxony, published a book titled De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis (Concerning the dead who chew in their graves), the German edition of which bears an intriguing subtitle: ‘Concerning the true nature of the Hungarian vampires and bloodsuckers.’ This fascinating text was an erudite response to popular belief that corpses could rise from their graves and spread disease among those they had once loved. The belief was a long-held one, and dated back to the horrific Black Death of the fourteenth century. But what did our Lutheran clergyman have to say about these ancient, superstitious beliefs? What did his erudite understanding of theology and medicine make of the Dead who Chew? Find out in today’s episode.
‘For a long time now, our fathers and mothers have been telling us stories of the “dead who chew” in the grave, but we thought it dishonorable to believe these tales and fables worthy of Aesop, and which impress only the little old women. Our reasons are easy to understand: we have not seen these “devouring dead” with our own eyes; our logical thinking has had no chance to understand this phenomenon, and the thing we fear most of all, more so than the bite of dogs or snakes, is to be accused of being superstitious.’Michael Ranft, De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis, I-8
Anton Serdeczny holds a doctorate in History from the École pratique des hautes études in Paris. After teaching early modern history in Marne-la-Vallée, Neuchâtel, Moscow, and Aix-Marseille, he is currently a visiting researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. His work focuses on the interactions of religion, culture and science, and particularly on the links between oral ritual culture and early modern medicine. He is the author of a book Du tabac pour le mort (2018), which argues that the development of medical resuscitation in the 18th century was an involuntary scholarly reworking of carnival rites and oral representations of resurrection.
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